When I was a kid, I spent most summers with my relatives in northern Michigan. They lived in a charming old town, where visitors admired the ornate Victorian houses, and enjoyed the stores and restaurants along the town’s main street. But one of my favorite things to do was, well, a little different.
I’d casually stroll behind the dress stores and the ice cream parlor, and then, like a detective, I’d stake out decaying things that I could photograph. I was fascinated by rusted fire escapes and the sprawling weeds that snaked between striped concrete parking barriers. I felt like there was something innately beautiful in these things that most people didn’t notice, or would rather change or destroy. I loved trying to make the beauty show through in those photographs. Later, when I learned about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the art of finding beauty in imperfection, it felt like an old friend.
I hadn’t consciously thought about wabi-sabi in quite a while. But this past month, my kids and I took two road trips. Long hours in the car gave me opportunities to notice how hard the parent-child relationship could feel sometimes, with its misunderstandings and disappointments. And I also saw how the unexpected surprises that are part of any journey added to that strain.
But then I thought about those photos from my childhood, and I realized that there are times when looking at the hard parts of parenting is a lot like seeing those weeds and rusting fire escapes—the beauty is there, we just need to shift the way we’re looking at something. I saw that there are many times each day when a good dose of wabi-sabi vision can buoy traveling families. In relationships, wabi-sabi helps us look beyond what we think we know. It helps us maintain a sense of humor and learn to ask good questions. Here’s a handy chart to get you thinking about how you can look at travel-parenting moments in a Wabi-Sabi kind of way:
Even if you aren’t traveling with children, wabi-sabi can serve you. Think of all the things that can frustrate us as travelers: delayed planes, cultural misunderstandings, ATM machines that won’t accept our cards, needing to leave a place when we’d rather stay….
No matter where we find ourselves in the world, each of our days has aspects that seem mundane. Noticing the beauty in small interactions, simple tasks, and ordinary moments can help us add richness to our lives.
How has a wabi-sabi mindset enhanced your travels?
In the 13th century, the Persian poet Rumi said, "Travel brings power and love back into your life." Most of Rumi’s journeys would have been on foot. They would have taken time. I like to think of him, smiling to himself, wandering fields and dusty roads and deep forests, poems moving through his mind like sunlight dappling the trees.
When he writes of power, I think he means “power to” as opposed to “power over.” Travel, with all its unexpected experiences, sights, tastes, new relationships, and opportunities to know ourselves in different ways, can renew us at our core. It can power us up so that what is most important to us shines through us more brightly than it did before.
And when we are powered up, we love more easily. We love better.
For Rumi, this kind of travel was a practice. It took time, and it took being fully present to what he was experiencing. Today, given the great ease and speed with which we move from place to place, it takes a deliberate decision to travel like Rumi. It’s easier today to float on the surface of experience, puddle-jumping from one thing to another, without truly letting experience impact us.
In this new year, what kind of traveler will you be?
At one point when I drove my kids to school this morning, we were stuck behind a vvvveeeeerrrrryyyy slow-moving street-sweeper on a two-lane road with no shoulder. The kids were shocked and delighted when I saw a break in oncoming traffic, flew into the opposing lane and whipped around the street-sweeper. They said it was the best ride to school ever.
This incident got me thinking about how often something as mundane as a drive to school becomes an adventure with my kids. Because even when we follow all the traffic rules, they notice and ponder so much about what happens around us. They discuss whether the brown lab or the beagle looks friendlier, and what life must be like for the dapper man who walks past us every day in a tailored suit and jaunty hat, smoking a cigar. They wonder why people say "it's a cloudy day," when really the whole sky is grey, and you can't see a single cloud. They are mindful without knowing it, present without trying.
While there are countless reasons why we travel, I think that many of us adults travel, in part, because we feel like our daily lives are not exciting enough. We think that the people walking down the street we're on are not as fascinating as the people in the next place we could go--in Paris or Malawi or Ecuador. But what if, actually, they are?
If we learn to pay attention, kids can remind us that the smallest experiences contain the largest possibilities. Practically anything can spark wonder in us, or help us start a conversation, or get us moving, or make us smile.
So here's your challenge: Let this upcoming week be a scavenger hunt for wonder, wherever you are. I'll do it too, and let's share together. Each day, notice, and write down or photograph, three small and simple things that spark the curious traveler in you.
Hi, I'm Deidra
To me, transformative travel means traveling in a way that connects you to places and people in a profound way., being real and present with what is happening while you travel and recognizing the impact travel has on your life beyond your journeys.